Bridging the gap between research and practice: how teachers use research-based knowledge

From Section:
Research Methods
Jan. 04, 2021

Source: Educational Action Research, 29:1, 118-132

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the authors focus on how research-based knowledge is used in practice to solve a specific practical problem: student dropout.
The existing research clearly demonstrates the complexity of the relationship between research-based knowledge and practice.
The transformation process knowledge undergoes from research to practice seems crucial in this regard.
Likewise, research indicates that this transformation process must include active interplay between researchers and teachers.
One key aspect seems to be teachers’ ability to reflect on the transformation process.
Based on these considerations, the aim of this article is to analyse two questions:
● How do teachers use research-based knowledge in practice?
● Which conditions support teachers’ use of research-based knowledge?
The analysis is based on a case involving an action research project conducted as research circles.
The case is about teachers’ strategies related to preventing dropout among young adults in vocational training programs.
The research-based knowledge encompasses knowledge about students’ dropout, partly gathered from this case and partly from other researchers.

The case: research circles on educational dropout
The analysis in this article is based on data collected as part of an ongoing action research project conducted as research circles.
The project’s objective is to reduce dropout rates among young adults in vocational training programmes.
The focus is on these young adults’ decision-making processes and the possibilities for teachers at the vocational college to intervene in these processes.
The broader goal is to develop knowledge which teachers can use to reduce dropout rates at vocational colleges.
The research project is organized in three parallel research circles located in different parts of the country.
In each research circle, 10 to 15 practitioners from five different colleges participate.
A total of 35 practitioners and 4 researchers are part of the project.
Six meetings in each circle have been held over a two-year period.
Between five and fifteen practitioners and two researchers participated in each of these meetings.
The researchers visit each college between meetings.
The practitioners’ task is to implement the activities agreed during circle meetings at their colleges.
The purpose of these activities is to reduce the dropout rate.
The researchers’ task is to organize the work in the research circles, to introduce relevant research-based knowledge to the project, and to compile and analyse data produced in the project.

The research method
To describe and analyse the research-based knowledge’s impact on the teachers’ way of thinking and acting, two sets of data were collected.
The first is a systematic compilation of knowledge at the end of the circle meetings; the other is based on interviews with the participating teachers.
The procedure for collecting the first data set was, at the end of the third and the fifth circle meetings, to ask the teachers to reflect on what they had learned during the project and how the research-based knowledge had contributed to that learning.
The participants were asked to reflect on the following two questions:
● What do you think is the most important thing you have learned from the project?
● How have the circle meetings contributed to this?
The second data set is based on a total of 12 interviews with teachers from each college.
All colleges were represented in the interviews.
The total data material includes information (narrations) regarding the use of practice-based knowledge as well as information (narrations) about the use of research-based knowledge.
In this article, however, the authors only focus on the latter.

Findings and discussion
In the research project on dropout presented in this article, the research-based knowledge includes theories regarding students’ reasons for dropping out, motivational theories and knowledge about strategies in relation to dropout (teetering).
It also includes knowledge about the different types of decision-processes and knowledge about research methods.
However, the authors found that the various kinds of knowledge were applied by teachers in different ways which corresponds with the findings from another study addressing the relationship between theory and practice (Ulvik, Riese, and Roness 2018).
In this project, the authors found that one way of bridging the gap between research-based knowledge and practice is to transform this knowledge to a practical setting.
This requires researchers to transform research-based knowledge into practical actions.
The transformation can be based on examples of how research-based knowledge explains practical issues, or the translation could be suggestions guidelines for practical action, e.g. guidelines for acting in new ways that are based on the research-based knowledge about the different kind of the students’ decision-making processes.
However, it is important that relevant practitioners participate in this transformation process.
They found that among the forms of research-based knowledge most frequently applied to practice by participating teachers were the categories of student decision-making processes.
This can be explained by the fact that the teachers participated in the development of these categories, thereby teachers contributing to the creation of the research-based knowledge. Meanwhile, when there was no collective process for developing or translating theories to explicitly address practice, usage of these theories was limited.
There was one exception to this rule.
Despite their not being involved in the development of the concept of teetering, it was used and referred to by many of the teachers.
One explanation might be that that this theory has already been translated to a relevant practical setting; it is a theory using concepts closely related to practice.
The image of teetering or staggering between different positions seems to be immediately understood by the teachers, who are able to incorporate it within their practice.
In accordance with the theory of transforming knowledge into practice (Dreer, Dietrich, and Kracke 2017; Lancaster, Milia, and Cameron 2012), the theoretical concept of teetering was applied to practice due to the close resemblance between the theory and practitioners’ practical experiences.
The authors only found a few examples of situations where the research-based knowledge presented was used to inform practitioners’ actions.
Particularly the more general theories seemed ill-suited as guidelines to help teachers deal with the issue of student dropout.
For instance, they were surprised that the motivational theory the researchers introduced had little influence on the teachers’ practice.
This might indicate a failure by the researchers to spend sufficient time and resources linking these theories to the practical setting.
However, it reflects a general challenge when attempting to bridge the gap between more general theories and practical actions.
The researchers conclude that in a traditional research process, the operationalization of scientific concepts serves as a way to connect theory and empirical data.
In action research, theoretical concepts must be translated to practical actions intended to solve concrete problems.
This can be seen as a pedagogical situation, where researchers take the initiative and involve practitioners in the translation process.
It is therefore important that researchers conducting action research projects are trained to transform research-based knowledge to practical actions in cooperation with practitioners.
This pedagogical process must not be neglected in action research.

Dreer, B., J. Dietrich, and B. Kracke. 2017. “From In-service Teacher Development to School Improvement: Factors of Learning Transfer in Teacher Education.” Teacher Development 21 (2):208–224. doi: 10.1080/13664530.2016.1224774.
Lancaster, S., L.D. Milia, and R. Cameron. 2012. “Supervisors Behaviours that Facilitate Training Transfer.” Journal of Workplace Learning 25 (1):7–22.
Ulvik, M., H. Riese, and D. Roness. 2018. “Action Research – Connecting Practice and Theory.” Educational Action Research 26 (2):273–287. 

Updated: Aug. 29, 2021
Research methods | Research utilization | Theories | Dropouts